Monday, January 27, 2003

My father-in-law keeps a flock of peacocks on the farm. They mostly stay over near his house about forty acres south of us, roosting in the Chinese chestnuts and stealing food from the cats. At the end of the summer, the males drop the tail feathers they have spent a year growing, leaving a kind of iridescent trail as they walk around the farm. Some blow away, some we pick up and pass on as gifts to friends and visitors. A few end up in odd corners around the in-laws' house and ours, forgotten until you run across them in the dead of winter while searching for some lost item. Living with peacocks is not always easy. They will eat almost anything, and the presence of one-eyed cats at the in-laws' house gives credence to the speculation that birds are the final descendants of the more aggressive small dinosaurs. No one who has lived through their calls at evening during nesting season will forget the experience. Flannery O'Connor wrote a magazine piece about the flock at her family's place in Milledgeville Georgia titled King of the Birds, anthologized in the Collected Works from the Library of America and in Mystery and Manners, an earlier collection by Sally Fitzgerald. She writes of the peafowl's evening voice:

The peacock perhaps has violent dreams. Often he wakes and screams "Help! Help!" and then from the pond and the barn and the trees around the house a chorus of adjuration begins:
Lee-yon lee-yon,
Mee-yon mee-yon!
Eee-e-yoy eee-e-yoy,
Eee-e-yoy eee-e-yoy!

The restless sleeper may wonder if he wakes or dreams

I have always, less poetically, described the sound as rather like a cat being crushed under a giant rusty hinge. Nonetheless, they are glorious creatures in their season, and finding one of those forgotten feathers in the dead of winter is like finding a flash of summer sunlight, preserved and radiant. What brought on these reflections was discovering the following poem in The Poetry Anthology, 1912-2002: Ninety Years of America's Most Distinguished Verse Magazine, newly arrived at the local library. The poem is by George Scarbrough, a Tennessee poet born in 1915, and still writing today. I had not heard of him before, and the loss was mine.


The old poet loves peacock feathers
And gathers them as they fall, one
By one, from perches in the trees
Near his house.

First, he caressed
Them with a dry writing brush, oh, so
Carefully, lest he separate the delicate
Spines, knowing the colors are interlocked.

Then, he looks for a place to stand them
In his cramped little house. Proper
Location, he says, is half of any art.
Near his bed he keeps a jarful of
These planetary pertubations.

In the egg-yolk light of his lamp,
He sees universes scintillating in blue
and gold like his beloved Saturn,
And hears from close by roosts, the dry
Clattering of galaxies being re-arranged.

And then the cry of damnation comes:
He sleeps and reams of starfalls
And all the rumpus of dragons.

The link above on Scarbrough's name will take you to a small press keeping some of his work in print. They have a sampling of his poems on-line together with a short biography. The Poetry Anthology is also well worth a look; a hundred years of poems, all workmanlike in their various fashions, some simply splendid. In addition to the names you find in any anthololgy, there are some wonderful discoveries waiting for the dedicated reader.